For real campaign reform, go online

April 02, 2002|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON -- Now that President Bush has signed the campaign finance bill into law, we'll see whether loopholes will be found around it, the courts will shoot it down or candidates will finds new ways to raise money on the Internet.

It is important at this point to reflect upon some basic assumptions of most efforts to reform the campaign finance system.

Most efforts have been based on two often unmentioned assumptions: that voters, who are essentially passive, cast their votes on Election Day largely because of paid advertisements, especially those on television, and that voters learn about campaign races largely from the media, especially from television.

Proponents of campaign finance reform have wanted to level the playing field so that candidates with less money would not be so disadvantaged at the polls.

The effort to reform the campaign finance system, of course, also tries to curb the influence that big givers have on legislation. But this line of influence is bound up with the whole campaign finance mess that makes votes in Congress depend on cash donations.

The bottom line is that much of the money given directly to campaigns ("hard money") and indirectly to parties ("soft money") is used for TV advertisements that are extremely thin on content and extremely rich in rhetoric and the art of deception.

If we eliminate the excesses and biases in the current campaign finance system -- especially by eliminating soft money -- it is still very likely that millions of voters will cast their votes from an uninformed point of view.

Campaign finance reform would have removed what was bad but added nothing that was good. The fat would have been taken out of the diet of the overweight individual, but no exercise would have been done on the part of the individual himself.

This applies especially to swing voters who are typically the main targets of those sound-bite ads during the last weeks of a campaign.

What this illustrates is that a critical dimension of the campaign reform movement is too frequently omitted -- namely, the actions that are required on the part of voters to become informed before an election.

Voters can read newspapers, watch televised debates, attend town hall meetings. Even more, voters now have available to them an incredible wealth of information on the Internet. Most candidates now have their own Web sites, and this year they will be better than they were in 2000.

Moreover, there are many nonpartisan, not-for-profit organizations that provide excellent information about elections, including Project Vote Smart, the California Voter Foundation and the League of Women's Voters.

And while there are manipulative and deceptive sites on the Internet, too, the truth is that any voter who wants to become well-informed about a race -- certainly statewide and federal races -- can get that information, and a lot of interaction, from the Internet.

The remarkable thing is that even without any campaign finance reform, voters could actually make well-informed decisions at the polls, if they put their minds to it. They would need to make a collective decision to ignore paid advertisements and to study races online.

This idea of a "TV boycott," of course, is unlikely, but it is important to recognize what people could do if they tried. We as a society are so addicted to TV commercials that we have trouble imagining what we could do if we really tried.

So the truth is that voters are empowered today with a technology -- the Internet -- that would let them fight the sound bites with megabytes of political information, even if the campaign finance system stayed the same.

Improving campaigns in America relies as much on the responsible conduct of voters as it does on the responsible conduct of candidates and their consultants.

As the speculation begins about how the new campaign finance law will affect American politics, it must be recognized that American voters vastly underrate and under-use their own power. If citizens decided to take control of their own election decisions, there is no telling what the implications would be.

David M. Anderson is task force director at the George Washington University Democracy Online Project.

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